How to create a sustainable personal social media strategy

Social Media by Jason A Howie Creative Commons via Flickr

I’ve been on ‘social media’ for quite a few years now. (I also really don’t like the term ‘social media’ because calling it media makes it seem like something you consume, like all other media.) I use Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn on a daily basis. I do so for a variety of reasons: to stay in touch with friends and acquaintances; to network in relation to my work; and to receive (and transmit) information and opinion from the social media news stream.

If you’ve spent any time on social media — particularly if you’re actually trying to participate and aren’t just ‘lurking’ — you know how time consuming it can be. It doesn’t really matter who you are: even if you’re a Gen Y digital native who’s come of age with a smartphone glued to his or her hands, the time demands of social media will sink you if you’re not careful and destroy your ability to pay attention to your work and your relationships. Many people now seem to exist in a stressful push-and-pull force field between the addictive siren call of Facebook or Twitter on the one side, and a keen awareness of the need to put down the phone, turn off the screen and focus on something real for an hour or two, on the other.

People sometimes ask me about how to be effective on social media. This can take the form of total newbie questions (“How do I start?” or “How do you do it?”) but more often, what people are looking for is a how-to for implementing some kind of sustainable social media presence for themselves. People have different objectives for trying to represent themselves better in social media (market yourself/find a new job, promote a business, promote a charity or cause, increase social interactions with existing friends, make new friends etc.). And while I don’t necessarily think of myself as a go-to expert in ‘social media marketing’ or any of the other pseudo-disciplines that have sprung up around these new technologies, I’m a keen, frequent and enthusiastic participant who tries to engage authentically. In addition, I think people ask me about it because they know I don’t have anything to ‘sell’ them — I have no specific angle or methodology, and I make no money from either social media or giving people social media advice.

Courage is saddling up anyway

Regardless of their specific objectives, many people lack both an understanding of what to do and the courage to do it. I know that ‘courage’ doesn’t, at first glance, seem a likely thing that could hold you back — but if you think about it honestly, you quickly discover that there’s quite a lot at stake. Whether you’re already participating in social media or not, you will be familiar with the news stories about how everything you say or do on the internet is now forever part of the public record: every link or picture you post,  every opinion you express can be found years after posting and forms a part of your history. The fear of creating the ‘wrong’ kind of history is what’s keeping many people — especially seasoned professionals — from doing anything ‘visible’ on social media at all. People don’t want to look foolish in front of others, and — as with anything that requires us to get our feet wet — we have to weigh up the benefits and drawbacks, and then we have to leap. Looking less foolish first requires us to be be open to the possibility of looking foolish. You need to give it a (serious) try and see what happens. The era when it was still okay not to have a visible social media presence is rapidly coming to an end. Those who aren’t at least passively connecting online may soon find the sun setting on their business opportunities (and their communications in general).

Once you spend some time on social media — maybe you start to follow a few people on Twitter, do some lurking on Facebook, marvel at how much time some people seem to spend on LinkedIn when you only log in once or twice a week — you realize that if you (smartly) decide to not let it occupy too much of your time, your chances of achieving your objectives with it are quite slim. At the surface, it seems that you would have to always be in front of your computer or smartphone — and posting things — in order to achieve any kind of visibility at all on the timeline. Just looking at the number of followers, friends or connections people have should make this clear: for example, at the time of publishing this blog post, I had 456 Facebook friends, 967 LinkedIn connections and was following 785 people on Twitter (while 495 followed me). Even though not everyone I see in my timelines is posting something every minute (or even every hour), it’s easy to see how someone who only posts something once in a while will get lost in the social media fire hose.

Combine the fear of exposing your lack of experience with the realization that you’d have to post a whole lot, and you can see why many people don’t even get started.

Original content vs. links

Unless you’re an active and prolific newspaper journalist (or have made blogging your main job), there is no conceivable way for you to produce enough original content to actually be visible on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. By ‘original content’ I don’t just mean blog posts: even 140-character Twitter posts themselves can be original content (pithy observations, quotable/re-tweetable statements on life or work, photos etc.). But the truth is that most of us couldn’t keep it up because — unlike Ashton Kutcher or Jessica Alba — we don’t have an instant, devoted audience whom we essentially don’t have to convince that our tweets are any good. Most of us have to actually post something of value, something that our followers would consider useful should they happen to see it. Perhaps even something they’d click on or interact with in some way.

My own answer to this is to post links to articles that I’ve read and appreciated (or that I want others to see). I have a strong personal interest in certain topics: civil liberties, technology industry and policy, democracy, the ‘design’ side of business (design thinking), meaningful capitalism (not just growth-oriented), personal productivity and work habits, and knowledge work (to name a few). On a daily basis, I scan a large number of source websites for good stories that I’d like to share with my followers. If this sounds daunting to you, consider this: it takes me about 30 minutes per day to find (and comment on) about 4-6 good links. Most days, I spend a little more on it than 30 minutes: I read a lot on the web every day and collect good links as I go. But the minimum time investment (once you’ve figured out what your preferred sources are and set up a routine) is half an hour every day.

I keep a list of good source sites, and I have many of them open in a separate browser window all day long (in fact, I use a Firefox add-on called Session Manager which automatically loads two Firefox windows when I open Firefox, each with its own pre-loaded default tabs) — so the articles are always there already.

The mechanics of posting (even when you’re asleep)

So how do you not spend all day posting things?

The simplest and most useful answer to this question is an app called Buffer. I can’t speak of it highly enough — it’s changed completely how I ‘do’ social media, the folks who built it are very friendly and responsive, and best of all it’s free (with certain restrictions1).

Buffer allows me to connect my three main social networks (Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn) and create a daily posting schedule. I currently use 4 daily slots which repeat every day (including weekends): two in the morning and two in the afternoon. While there is research out there that suggests the best times of the day to post on social media, I think of it a little like the stock market: if everyone buys the same stock, its potential for generating great returns is significantly reduced. So I have built my Buffer schedule using a bit of trial and error, taking into account when people might go to (or return from) meetings — but also when my followers in other parts of the world might be awake.

To actually start posting using Buffer, I use its Firefox add-on (other platforms available) to load links into my Buffer queue at any time of the day. Buffer overlays a popup window and shows me what the posting will look like in my three social networks. I can select or de-select my destination networks and edit the description of the link, select the correct image to post with it, etc. I send most links to all three networks, but sometimes — if the material’s a little more personal or political in nature — I may only send it to Twitter and Facebook. (I do give some thought to how to describe the links I post, often re-writing the headline/summary completely. The source websites don’t always summarize their articles the way I would — or briefly enough to fit into 140 characters. I also like using the article description as a kind of very brief commentary.)

Sometimes I spend time the night before to fill my Buffer, other days I post as I go. Buffer can work in three posting modes (which you can mix and match):

  • Buffer mode (which places the item into the next available future open slot in your schedule)
  • Share Now mode (which posts the item right away), and
  • Schedule mode (which allows you to pick a custom date and time for the post).

I typically fill my four daily schedule slots and sometimes also use the Schedule mode to add additional articles to the schedule. When I have something to share immediately, I use Share Now, even from my iPhone when I’m out and about. (I find that being disciplined about which posting client you use is really helpful when it comes to tracking engagement statistics later. Buffer provides comprehensive tracking of clicks, Facebook ‘likes’ etc..)

Buffer is one of those revolutionary “why didn’t I think of that?” ideas. While there have been social media clients with scheduling before, this makes it really easy — and the fact that it’s free makes it a no-brainer part of the digital toolkit (in fact, I think it’s so good that I would pay for it if I ever had to).

King of all media

Howard Stern used to describe himself as the “king of all media.” While I’m no Howard Stern, I do think that your personal social media strategy will ultimately benefit from what will inevitably appear to you as ‘over-posting.’ Going from zero to 100 is admittedly a little scary — and if you’ve been lurking for a while, it’ll also be slightly disorienting to those who you’re already connected to online. Suddenly, there you are, posting away at a much higher frequency than ever before. Previously, you weren’t visible to anyone, and suddenly you’re everywhere. But given that you’re always looking at your own Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn profile, your own posts will obviously seem overwhelmingly frequent — to you. My advice: do not dial it back. Keep going. Because chances are, what I’m seeing is just a normal, moderately visible public persona. That’s the true nature of the timeline.

I also believe that it makes good sense to post most things to all of your social networks. I understand that you’re connected to some people on multiple networks, and that they’re going to see everything multiple times in different environments. But I only have certain people on LinkedIn, and others only on Twitter. I figure that those who are annoyed at my frequent posts will find ways of tuning me out (social networks are good at helping users tune out). And I happen to think that many of the things I post would in fact be useful to many different kinds of people from different parts of my life (maybe that’s the Howard Stern influence).

Social networking offers us unprecedented opportunities to connect to, and interact with, others. It also offers a chance to influence others: to market our ideas and causes. But first you have to become visible.

  1. You can connect one Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn account in the free version, and all three will have the same ‘schedule.’ If you need multiple different accounts of the same type and/or you want each social network to have its own schedule, you would need to upgrade to the paid version. 

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